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Fetal tissue sold illegally, GOP House members say

WASHINGTON – House Republicans produced documents Wednesday that they said prove at least one company is illegally profiting from the study of human fetal tissue, but Democrats on the panel said there is no evidence that New Mexico organizations under scrutiny are profiting.

The Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives convened its second hearing to examine the controversial issue of fetal tissue research, which triggered fierce congressional debate after a series of secret videos last summer appeared to show Planned Parenthood officials haggling over the price of fetal tissue.

Under federal law, abortion providers can’t sell fetal tissue, but they can transfer it for purposes of medical research. Abortion providers are permitted to recover the cost of processing and shipping the tissue, although those costs are not specified or capped by law.

The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, which has studied fetal tissue, and Southwestern Women’s Options, an Albuquerque abortion provider that has provided fetal specimens for research, have both been subpoenaed for documentation by the House special investigative committee.

“The UNMHSC categorically denies ever having bought or sold fetal tissue,” said Billy Sparks, a spokesman for the Health Sciences Center in an email to the Journal. “Nor has it made any reimbursement for the tissue it has received from women who consented to donate it for research purposes.”

During the hearing, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the House panel, pointed to documents that show companies’ websites offering various body parts from babies, available by the gestation period of the pregnancy at the time of the abortion. She said the business has been growing in recent years.

One document produced at the hearing touted an unidentified fetal tissue procurement company’s services to abortion clinics as “financially profitable” and “providing a financial benefit to your clinic.” Democrats on the panel said the document was from California-based Stem Express, which also has been subpoenaed by the panel.

“This does not sound to me like tissue donation for research – this sounds like someone who wants to make money – a lot of money – selling baby body parts,” Blackburn said.

A Stem Express lawyer wrote in a letter to the committee this week that the language about profitability referred only to Stem Express’s work on adult blood and adult tissue – not fetal tissue donation.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said Blackburn has unfairly targeted UNM and Southwestern Women’s Options but that was the extent of discussion Wednesday about New Mexico’s involvement in the issue.

“Let me underscore that fact: no money is exchanged in connection with a woman’s choice to donate fetal tissue to researchers at the University of New Mexico,” Schakowsky said, adding that UNM and others were subpoenaed anyway.

“As a result, the university and clinic have been subject to unwarranted accusations from state and federal officials and additional targeted harassment from anti-abortion extremists,” she said. “Is it any wonder that universities, clinics and others are reluctant to hand over the names of their researchers, students, clinic personnel and doctors so that the Chair can amass a dangerous database of their names?”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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